Swimming in a Storm

A year after the flooding of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, Elise Sadlier muses on the state of the local awa, the histories that led to their pollution, and how we might weather the storms ahead.

Whaea Waimata, Whaea Taruheru, Whaea Tūranganui; brown and curvy and quick to anger. Under the East Coast sun our three rivers develop a sheen of oil. Blackened rainbows snake across their surface. Silt moves through achingly; smuggling coal dust and remnants of forestry. Plants cling to the bank, choked by mud and salt and plastic bottles. The air is stagnant. Heavy. Like a cough.

As Whaea Tūranganui spills into the sea, Cook looks on through bronzed eyes.


I am ten years old, at weekly waka ama practice.

“Rima, ono, whitu.”

I scrape my thumb against the hull of the waka.

The next morning, as I wash my hands, I feel a swelling and tightening around the graze. It bulges with infection, angry and red.


Paroro: the clouds gather.

In her younger days, Whaea Tūranganui stretched her arms out for the young girls to wade in her shallows. They would wash in her translucent waters, dark hair reaching out like the tentacles of a wheke. Grandmother warmed her skin on the hot stones. The boys would paddle and splash, drawing up mullet from the depths. Children climbed over the rocks, prying pūpū and hunting crabs.

Kiwa stands on the shore.

He watches.

He waits.


1869. Te Kooti’s rebellion spreads across the region. Like te rā breaking through te pō, the sky is bloody. The people who claim kinship with the land resist the Crown’s plans to dominate and control it. The toll is brutal. In retaliation, the Crown applies pressure for the land surrounding the rivers to be sold to it. This land has now become the Gisborne township.

Later, a motion is passed that the entire foreshore be given to the council, and that steps be taken to alienate the Indigenous owners that remain.


And then, there was Te Toka-a-Taiau. A large – sacred – rock that stood in the mouth of Whaea Tūranganui. The centre of our universe. The place that marked the boundary lines between Ngāti Porou and Rongowhakaata. The altar where my blood laps over. The rock where Pākehā and Māori pressed their noses together and shared the breath of life for the first time.


1877. The most fruitful land was seized. Te Toka-a-Taiau was blasted with dynamite by the Gisborne Harbour Board. The heart of our land sinking into the sand.

Following that, the freezing works on the east side of the river were developed. Then a breakwater. A wharf. A block yard. A railway. Entire dune systems were rerouted, the river becoming tidal; the water became more and more polluted. Where once the children dug pipi with their toes and pried mussels from the rocks, only empty shells and poison remained.


As our people felt the push to migrate from rural areas in search of work, the population of Gisborne increased, spawning houses and asphalt roads (1). The river’'s bends and meanders were tamed with retaining walls and locked into place.Have you ever tried to hold an East Coast woman back? The aunties’ agency to carve and flow freely was taken away. From then on, they struggled to heal themselves, growing angry, bitter and resentful (2).


Kaiti kids break away to the train bridge on a summer’s day, the nephrite water rushing up to greet them. My cousins and I wrestle in the mud. I wade hip-high before I back away at the sight of a rat scurrying up the bank. I can’t help but envision them gnawing at my feet, building rafts, practising synchronised swimming routines in the wastewater.

I spend the rest of the day sitting on the grass. Saturday is wash day but the smell doesn’t come out of my hair for what feels like a week.


Every New Year, Finlay’s Fire in the Sky presents an expensive fireworks show. What feels like the entire population of Gisborne sets up camp to watch it. Even during those times of celebration, the smell, the presence, the mauri of the river, is palpable. Dark, contaminated waters ebb and flow under a sky of smoke and wild lights. With the smell of gunpowder in the air, I think of Te Toka-a-Taiau, her remains strewn throughout the bed.


February 2023. Cyclone Gabrielle swells in the North Pacific. It brushes up against Auckland before pulling the East Coast into a humid and fierce embrace. Winds lash and uproot. Tides surge forward in the middle of the night as a torrent of rain comes down. Homes become swimming pools.

I am cut off from my family. I don’t usually watch the news, but I keep checking my phone for updates. The aunties unleash their fury. I see Whaea Waimata and Whaea Taruheru open their mouths and swallow the banks. I see their bellies churn and froth and spew. They lash over one another and over their whānau in their grief. They spill through the doors and windows of people’s homes. I see trees pulled from the soil, strewn across the river, swarming against the pillars of the bridges. Voices heavy with mamae. Faces darkened by grief and defeat.


I am in Auckland, driving home from work, when I finally receive a call from my parents. Four days of a knot in my throat that finally loosens.

My parents tell me they went to a friend’s house to help clear it out after the flooding. Mud permeated everything; climbing up the walls and soaking into every inch of the house. The river carved its own path of devastation, running through doors and taking everything with it. Tearing through windows, up stairs, and putting itself to bed in nurseries.

The entire coastline was covered in pines and sediment. Oily run-off congealing on rotting driftwood and raw sewage infecting the shore.

This is a part of a call, a karanga, to return to the land.


Since I was a child, I’ve been plagued by nightmares of the stream by my primary school. In my dreams, it is full of rubbish and dirty water. I wade through it and I cannot get out. The water rushes into my mouth and drags me under.


There is a native bird – the korimako – that thrives in the Gisborne region. The korimako fights against the storms and the winter to reach the sweet nectar of the flowers. The winds beat it back, but still, it reaches.


It’s undeniable that Māori see themselves not as owners of the land, but as kaitiaki. We centre our relationships around it. Those relationships have always been symbiotic. For nearly a thousand years, our people passed down knowledge and experienced kinship with the land. Our society needs to accept and enforce the power of this knowledge.

Living in accordance with the land means more accessible foods, undisrupted by corporate greed and inflation. It means nurturing our fishing grounds and community orchards. It means returning to our kūmara pits, upholding rāhui placed over the land by our kaumātua, granting personhood to our taonga wai, and other significant landmarks. It means the ability to swim in awa that are clean.

Living in accordance with the taiao means recognising that all its elements are whānau, and that we treat them as such. Whaea Waimata, Whaea Taruheru and Whaea Tūranganui. They belong to us and we to them.

The clouds are gathering. The rain comes down. The waters are rising.

We natives learn to grow feathers like the korimako. Having weathered a thousand storms, we reach for the nectar. Its promise is sweet.

1. Michael Spedding, The Turanganui River: A Brief History (Gisborne: Department of Conservation), 21–29.

2. Gary J. Brierley, Daniel Hikuroa, Ian C. Fuller, John Tunnicliffe, Kristiann Allen, James Brasington, Heide Friedrich, Jo Hoyle, and Richard Measures, “Reanimating the Strangled Rivers of Aotearoa New Zealand,” WIREs Water10, no. 2 (2022): 2,

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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